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Medieval Western Philosophy

This generally refers to philosophical views of the 5th to the 15th century, although many scholars differ on the precise beginning and ending of the period. The period was dominated by Scholasticism, whose principal concern was to use reason in defense of their faith. Almost all philosophy during the Middle Ages was written by theologians, either Christian or Muslim, and presupposed their religious ideas. Sometimes this resulted in exploration of philosophical ideas interesting in their own right, but very often the philosophy is of little direct relevance to theosophy. In fact, the mention of Scholastic philosophers in early theosophical literature focuses almost exclusively on peripheral ideas rather than on the principal philosophic arguments.

It is common to include St. Augustine (334-430) among medieval philosophers, even though he predates what is generally considered to be the medieval period (c. 5th to 15th centuries). Born in Tagaste, in present-day Algeria, and raised by a Christian mother, he rejected religion during his rather wild youth. He first was converted by Faustus to Manichaenism, which has more in common with theosophy than later Christian theology (cf. IU II:35-38), but after studying Platonism and skepticism in Milan, he was baptized a Christian in 387 by St. Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, and returned to Tagaste to live a monastic life. On a visit to nearby Hippo in 391, he was made a priest and later (395) a bishop of that city. He died during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. He is sometimes considered to be the founder of Christian theology. His major works include his Confessions (written c. 400) and City of God (written sometime after 412). Also important are the doctrinal and polemical works On the Trinity, Against Faustus (his Manichean teacher), On Baptism, On the Correction of the Donatists (defending Church authority derived from Apostolic Succession), and Retractions (written late in his life and offering revisions of some of his earlier ideas). In addition, he defended, against the Pelagians, the doctrine of original sin and the necessity for God’s grace for salvation, and wrote works on biblical exegesis. His impact on later Christian theology cannot be minimized. Most of his works are still available in translation.

There are numerous references in Blavatsky’s two major works, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, to Augustine’s ideas, most of them uncomplimentary, such as about his belief that the planet Venus is identical with Lucifer and caused the Deluge (SD II:32), his negative attitude toward science (cf. IU II:88-9), including a belief that the earth is flat (IU I:513; II:477-8), his belief in predestination (IU II:546), and his intolerance toward other religions (IU II:70, 81, 88), contrasting him in the latter case with the great Indian emperor, Aoka (IU II:81). But she does point out that he, as well as other early Church fathers, were decidedly influenced by Plato and such neo-Platonists as Philo, finding their “mystical” ideas “not so obnoxious . . . to the new doctrine as to prevent the Christians from helping themselves to its abstruse metaphysics in every way and manner” (IU II:33). This Platonic influence continued to be dominant in Catholic theology until the rediscovery of Aristotle made that philosopher’s ideas preeminent, as they are to the present. She also points out that Augustine, among many other Churchmen, accepted the idea of divination and magic, which the Church subsequently claimed could only be done by its “chosen ministers and holy saints,” not by common people who therefore must, it argued, be possessed by the Devil in order to be able to do such things (IU II:22; cf. pp. 67ff, 252, 633).

The writings of an anonymous late 5th or early 6th cent. philosopher-theologian were later falsely attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, a 1st cent. Athenian converted to Christianity by St. Paul, hence he is usually referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius. These consist of ten letters and four longer treatises written in Greek: The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Divine Names, and Mystical Theology. Latin translations of these neo-Platonic writings influenced Scholastic philosophy for seven centuries, up to and including Aquinas. The classification of celestial beings into nine types (Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations or Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Archangels, and Angels, most of which are mentioned at various places in the Bible; see, esp., Eph. 1.21, Col. 1.16) is usually attributed to his Celestial Hierarchy, although its origin can be traced back to the 5th cent. neo-Platonist Proclus. The theosophists, principally Charles W. Leadbeater and James I. Wedgwood, who developed the liturgy of the Liberal Catholic Church, utilized that classification in the Canon of the Holy Eucharist, although mentioning it in a different order.

The Roman philosopher and statesman Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 475-525), also a Neo-Platonist, has been covered briefly in the article on Neoplatonism. The Irish philosopher John Scotus Erigena (c. 810-c. 877), perhaps the last largely Neo-Platonist theologian, was heavily influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, whose writings he translated into Latin at the request of Charles II, king of the West Franks, who had invited Erigena around 847 to head the court school in Paris. He was a highly learned Irish scholar who identified God as the beginning and end of all thought. He divided whatever exists into four classes: that which creates, but is not created, i.e., God conceived as the beginning of all things; that which is created and also creates, which he called the Logos; that which is created but does not itself create, i.e., the world, which is brought into existence by a process of emanation (reminiscent of Plotinus); and that which neither creates nor is created, i.e., God conceived as the end of all things. His idea, which has some similarity to the theosophical idea of involution and evolution, is that all is manifested by God and eventually returns to Him.

Anselm (1033?-1109) was born in Aosta, Italy, ordained a priest in France, and later (1093) became archbishop of Canterbury, England. His efforts to free the Church in England from secular control put him at odds with several monarchs, but finally resulted in papal supremacy over the British Church. He was a strict follower of Augustine and is credited with the formal beginnings of Scholasticism with his formula “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intelligentiam). He is best known for his attempt to prove the existence of God by means of the Ontological Argument. Basically, the argument proceeds thus: (1) even a fool, who does not believe in God, understands by the term “God” a Being than which nothing greater could be conceived; (2) now, if a person, even a fool, has an idea of such a Being, with all desirable perfect attributes yet without existence, one could always conceive of a greater Being which had all the same attributes plus existence; (3) and since God is a Being than which nothing greater can be conceived, the mere ability to conceive of such a Being means His attributes must include existence; (4) hence God exists. The problem with the argument is that existence is not an attribute of anything, but rather is an indication that something with various attributes may be experienced or located in the world in some sense. Anselm’s argument, in fact, was severely criticized in his own day by, among others, a Catholic monk named Gaunilo. Indeed, all purely deductive arguments, to prove the existence of God, such as the Ontological Argument, are formally invalid. One proves the existence of something by induction based upon experience, not by deduction. Nevertheless, the argument continues to attract adherents who attempt (most philosophers say futilely) to revise it so as to avoid its fallaciousness.

One theologian-philosopher whom Anselm attacked was Jean Roscelin (c. 1045-c. 1120) also known as Johannes Roscellinus, a French nominalist, i.e., one who denied the independent existence of universal properties (which Plato had attempted to establish and which Aristotle denied). Little is known of his ideas. He is best remembered as one of the teachers of Abelard, the other being William of Champeaux (c. 1070-1121). HPB explicitly rejects his nominalism — and by extension all other forms of nominalism — in her The Secret Doctrine (vol. 1, p. 3 fn.).

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) is known primarily for three things: his love for his student Heliose, the lovely and intelligent niece of the Canon of Notre Dame; being regarded as the founder of the University of Paris; and his modified nominalism which involved him in contentious debates with his realist teacher William of Champeaux and the influential mystic St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090?-1153). He married Heloise after she had borne him an illegitimate son, but was subsequently attacked and emasculated at the instigation of her uncle. He then became a monk and Heloise a nun. Although his teachings were often condemned by the Church, he had many pupils, among them John of Salisbury and (probably) Peter Lombard. His most famous work was Sic et Non (Thus and Not), a collection of contradictory statements gleaned from the writings of Church Fathers.

It is sometimes suggested that Scholasticism really was born out of the philosophic conflict between Abelard and Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1096-1141). The latter was the head of a monastery school in France which, under his direction, became one of the principal centers of learning in his day. Like St. Bernard, he was a mystic and wrote several influential mystical treatises, including Arca Noë moralis (The moral Ark of Noah), Arca Noë mystica (The mystical Ark of Noah) and De amore sponsi ad sponsam (On a husband’s love of his wife). Using the same dialectic methods of Abelard, he nevertheless, unlike his rival, managed to support Catholic orthodoxy, thus aiding the eventual acceptance of the dialectic method in Catholic philosophical theology.

Peter Lombard (c. 1100-c. 1160), an Italian theologian who is said to have been a pupil of Abelard, is principally noted for his Sentences, which are drawn from Abelard’s Sic et Non, and for his doctrine that a sacrament is both a symbol and a means of grace. The former became the principal textbook for theological study after his time. The latter doctrine (actually part of his Sentences) identified seven sacraments which fulfilled his criteria and was adopted as the official doctrine of the Church. There is only a passing reference in Blavatsky’s Collected Writings to his agreement with Augustine that angels can act but not suffer (CW VII:188).

Of considerable importance to medieval Christian philosophers were the two Muslim philosophers, Ibn Sina (known in Latin as Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (or Averroës) whose translations of the works of Aristotle reintroduced his thought into Scholastic philosophy, resulting eventually in its replacing Platonism. In addition to Aristotle, both of those philosophers were influenced, directly or indirectly, by a number of S™f… saints as well as by orthodox Islam. One of the most important figures in the latter two areas of influence was Ab™ H€mid Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Ghazal… (1059-1111 or 451-505 AH). Born at Tus in Khorasan, al-Ghaz€l… lived his early years in that northern Persian province. His schooling was that of an orthodox theologian and lawyer; and in 1090 he was appointed professor of divinity at Niz€m…ya Madrasa in Baghdad. In 1095, however, he gave up teaching and turned his back, as he put it, on “reputation and wealth and wife and children and friends” (quoted in A. J. Arberry, S™fism: an account of the mystics of Islam [NY: Harper, 1970; orig. pub. George Allen & Unwin, 1950], p. 80). Living in retirement for 10 years; yearning for a more spiritual life, he wrote, “I turned my attention to the Way of the S™f…s” (idem.). He first studied their books, then practiced their discipline. As a result, he was able to assimilate S™f…sm and reconcile its mystical ideas with orthodox Sunni theology and religious law. Austin calls him “perhaps the greatest theologian of Islam” (R. W. Austin, Sufis of Andalusia [a translation of the R™h al-quds and al-Durrat al-f€khirah of Ibn al-‘Arab…], p. 136). His greatest work, the monumental four volume Iƒy€’ ‘ul™m ad-d…n (Revival of Religious Sciences) was written between 1099 and 1102. S™f… mystics, like al-’Arab… (1165-1240 or 560-638 AH), whose thought Arberry calls a theosophy, had interpreted the Qur’€n by means of metaphor, utilizing Greek thought and their own intuitive experiences, in their commentaries. Following their lead, al-Ghaz€l… held that ordinary exegesis was a necessary preliminary for a spiritual or inner interpretation of scripture, but that reason was subordinate to direct intuitive knowledge (ma‘rifa).

Ibn Sina – or Avicenna – (980-1037) was a Persian physician as well as philosopher, whose Canon of Medicine was influential for over 400 years. His classification of the sciences remained standard in medical schools throughout Europe for the remainder of the medieval period. He was born near Bukhara, Persia (now called Bukhoro in Uzbekistan). His interpretation of Aristotle was somewhat influenced by Neoplatonism, holding that God (or All€h) emanated the universe from himself by a sort of triplication of intellect or rational soul, appetitive soul, and body. Man’s soul, he taught, is derived from the divine intellect (Aristotle’s “active intellect”) which is the governing or formative agency of all manifested things. In other words, Plato’s concept of a transcendental Form (4*,“) which he had argued existed independently of objects and which Aristotle located within objects, was located by Ibn Sina in the mind of God (i.e., neither totally immanent nor completely independent in its existence). Since man’s soul is derived from that “active intellect,” it is immortal. He is mentioned only in passing in Isis Unveiled and that only concerning his medical ideas, not his philosophy.

Ibn Rushd – or Averroës – (1126-1198) was a Spanish Muslim, therefore more likely to have been familiar with the ideas of al-’Ar€b…, who was also from Spain. In fact, he was far more influential in European than in Muslim philosophy. In addition to his philosophy, he was a lawyer and a physician. His philosophical ideas were also influenced by the little-known Spanish-Arabian philosopher Ibn-Bajja (Latinized as Avempace) who died in Fez, Morocco in 1138 and had sought to harmonize the theology of Islam with the philosophies of Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists. Ibn Rushd’s most important work was his commentary on Aristotle which continued to be studied well into the Renaissance period. Unlike al-Ghazz€l…, he did not feel that reason was subordinate to direct intuition, but rather that the two did not conflict at all. Furthermore, he held that philosophy (following Plato’s concept that it is the love of wisdom, i.e., direct awareness of ultimate reality) contains absolute truth and that revealed religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are derivatives of that absolute truth appropriate to the historical situations into which they come. Therefore, there can be no contradiction between religion or science (which are time-bound) and philosophy. Ideas, such as the creation of the world in six days or creation of “heaven” out of the “smoke” of the “earth” (cf. Qur’€n, 41.10-11), which might have been taken literally at first, are later realized to be understood metaphorically. So also polygamy might have been appropriate at a certain time, but is not consonant with absolute truth, therefore is appropriately abandoned in later historical periods. As in the case of Ibn Sina, there is only passing mention of his medical ideas in Isis.

A very influential figure in medieval philosophy was the English prelate Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253). He was educated at Oxford (and probably also Paris), later becoming a teacher and rector at Oxford; he is credited with making that university an important center of learning. He was an extremely learned scholar and a prolific writer, very much influenced by the Muslim translations of Aristotle. His commentaries on that philosopher greatly influenced both Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas. Among his pupils was the monk Roger Bacon, often mentioned favorably in theosophical literature (see, e.g., IU I:64-65; quoted in SD I:581 fn). Grosseteste was interested in science and is now considered an early practitioner of the scientific method. In addition to pastoral works and French poetry, he wrote on psychology, mathematics, astronomy, and various branches of physics.

Albertus Magnus (1193?-1280) is mentioned in Isis Unveiled. He was a nobleman of Swabia, a region of Germany, who taught at several German schools before being made a doctor of theology by the University of Paris in 1245. His favorite pupil was Thomas Aquinas. Not only was he a student of Aristotle, he also followed Grosseteste’s example in the area of science, making some important botanical observations and studying the properties of metals. Interestingly, all of HPB’s references concern his interest in areas peripheral to what is now identified as science, specifically sympathetic magic and conjuring. But she has no discussion at all of his philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), known as “the Angelic Doctor,” was probably the greatest and most influential of all the Scholastic philosopher-theologians. In fact, his was declared the official Catholic philosophy by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. He was born in Rocca Secca, Italy (near Naples), and had early education in Italy before entering the Dominican Order in 1244. The following year he went to Paris to study with Albertus Magnus, eventually becoming professor of theology there. Sometime after 1259 he spent several years in Italy as professor and adviser to the Pope. He returned to Paris in 1269 to challenge Siger de Brabant (fl. 1260-1277), a French theologian who taught, among other things, the doctrine of a “double truth,” i.e., that something could be rationally true but theologically false. Thomas prevailed and Siger’s doctrines were condemned. Aquinas also criticized Augustine’s view that truth is a matter of faith, holding that the two realms of faith and reason are complementary and are both gifts from God. His principal works include commentaries on various works of Aristotle, the Summa contra Gentiles (1258-1260), and the unfinished Summa Theologica (1267-1273). His approach to philosophical problems was to state two apparently contradictory views and then, by making subtle distinctions, to show how they could be reconciled. He is also famous for his attempts to prove the existence of God by five different arguments (from motion, efficient cause, possibility and necessity, grades of perfection, and governance or order in the world), usually referred to as “the five ways” (and sometimes stated in other terms). By means of this, he hoped to use reason in defense of faith. Unfortunately, all the arguments beg their question (by including a version of the conclusion in one of the premises), therefore are fallacious. Furthermore, the kind of God they attempt to establish is abstract (e.g., a Prime Mover, a First Cause, or a Necessary Being) rather than the personal God found in Christian theology. The only mention of him in Isis Unveiled, other than criticism, is to his involvement with magic. For instance, HPB states that Aquinas once smashed Albertus Magnus’ wand “to pieces” because it was inhabited by a “spook” which had been mesmerically “fixed inside,” but which talked so incessantly that it “prevented the eloquent saint from working out his mathematical problems” (IU II:56). Obviously, that sort of anecdote does not appear in any scholarly sources.

Scholastics who came after Aquinas, such as Bonaventure (1221-1274), Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), and William of Occam (c. 1285-c. 1349), often regarded as the last of the great medieval thinkers, are not mentioned at all in classical theosophical writings. Bonaventure (or Bonaventura) was born Giovanni di Fidanza near Viterbo, Italy. After entering the Franciscan Order in his late teens or early twenties, he went to Paris for studies, later joining its faculty as a colleague of Thomas Aquinas. He eventually rose to the rank of cardinal and died while serving as a papal legate at the Second Council of Lyons. Among his writings are commentaries on Lombard’s Sentences, The Mind’s Road to God (Itinerarium mentis in Deum), and a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. His principal contribution to Scholasticism was to reconcile the teachings of Aristotle and Augustine. He rejected the radical nominalism of Roscelin and even the modified nominalism of Abelard in favor of a modified form of realism. He stressed the total dependence of everything on God. He also became a mystic and wrote guides to mystic contemplation.

John Duns Scotus was born in Scotland, as his name suggests. After becoming a Franciscan, he taught at Oxford, Paris, and Cologne. Among his works are On the First Principle and also, like Bonaventure, a commentary on the Sentences, but the exact number of his works is unknown. He is famous (or infamous, as the case may be) for making even more philosophic distinctions than Aquinas in order to reconcile apparent contradictions, which earned him the title of “the Subtle Doctor.” For this he was parodied and anyone who argued like him was called a “Duns,” now written “dunce.” Among his ideas was an early version of the social contract theory, later developed by the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

William of Occam, who also became a Franciscan, was born in Ockham, Surrey, England (near London) and studied and taught at Oxford. His radical nominalism and empiricism contrasted sharply with Aquinas’ Aristotelian form of realism and brought charges of heresy upon him. Actually, his idea was to limit the realm of reason to make room for faith, not unlike the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He fled to Bavaria for protection under Louis IV, then Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He is thought to have died there during the black plague. His philosophy is contained in a work called Dialogus (Dialogues). He is now known principally for his law of parsimony, called “Occam’s Razor,” usually stated as “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” In other words, the simpler of two explanations is the correct one, a cardinal principle in modern science.

Although Scholasticism is generally considered to end with Occam, sometimes Cajetan (1480-1547) is included for his efforts to revive Thomism. Born in Gaeta, Italy (“cajetan” is Latin for “from Gaeta”) as Tomaso de Vio, he joined the Dominicans around 1484 and eventually rose to become a cardinal. As a papal legate to Germany in 1518-19, he attempted unsuccessfully to reconcile the differences between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church. He also strongly opposed the divorce of King Henry VIII of England from Catherine of Aragon. He is principally known for his translation of parts of the Bible and his important commentary on Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The only reference to him in theosophical literature is a criticism by HPB for consigning the Book of Enoch to the Apocrypha while including as canonical the Book of Jude which quotes from Enoch (SD II:531).

Of more interest to theosophy are the 15th-16th cent. philosopher-magicians Agrippa and Paracelsus, who were not Scholastics and are not included in standard works on medieval philosophy. In fact, they really are Renaissance figures who are transitional between the medieval and modern periods overlapping Copernicus (1473-1543) and coming just prior to Galileo (1564-1642) and Descartes (1596-1650).

It is obvious, then, that most medieval philosophers are mentioned minimally in classical theosophical works and only a few transitional Renaissance magicians get any extensive attention. It is also evident that it is the Pythagoreans, Platonists, and Neo-Platonists, rather than the Aristotelians, who are quoted favorably.


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